The Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun made two visits to the United States in his youth, and after the second, between 1886 and 1888, he wrote The Cultural Life of Modern America (1889). Otherwise a book over which a decent veil had best be dropped, it contains an eccentric criticism of Shakespeare:

There is a brutal simplification in Shakespeare’s depiction of human emotions that makes them quite different from our own: his portrayals of love, wrath, desperation, and merriment fail to come off from sheer violence. We recognize these uncompromising emotions without shading or nuance as belonging to a bygone age when men still frothed at the mouth—consequently Shakespeare is not a modern psychologist…. Shakespeare’s plays are again just as simple, just as uncomplicated as the emotions he portrays; they are very often naïve in comparison with the work of modern dramatists.

This of course is a lot of balderdash, and it isn’t his occasional kindly qualification (“Shakespeare is not a modern dramatist, but a dramatist he will remain until the end of time”) that makes it almost acceptable in its context. It is Hamsun’s views of America that make his reflections on Shakespeare seem, relatively, high praise. For instance, if I may twitch the veil momentarily, he tells his shuddering readers how America attempted to create an intellectual elite by marrying its sons and daughters to imported Negroes (“a nascent human form from the tropics”) and established instead “a mulatto studfarm.”

The comments on Shakespeare may provide a point of departure for one’s reflections on Hamsun’s novels. He is an author whom it is difficult to write about without either underpraise or overpraise. On the face of it, overpraise would seem the more unlikely outcome, for there are passages in his work ripely redolent of late nineteenth-century high-minded flummery. But I note that (in an essay that otherwise contains some apt appreciation) Isaac Bashevis Singer makes large claims for him: “The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun, just as Russian literature in the nineteenth century ‘came out of Gogol’s great-coat.’ ” This calls to mind Hermann Hesse, another charmer of youth, who is held to be a master of modernism, though to me his work resembles an intellectual supermarket in which some of the more exciting elements of modernism can be obtained at less mental expense than is asked in the studios of the great masters.

There is a faint flavor of the fairy tale about Hamsun’s novels. What quickly strikes the reader is the somewhat capricious way in which his characters respond to common circumstances and the apparent gratuitousness of their behavior. All this inevitably causes one to cock an ear for the clash of symbols. Hamsun must surely find new readers at a time when so many reject finished, “autonomous” art in favor of a malleable artlessness that they can shape to accommodate their own inchoate yearnings and dissatisfactions.

But Hamsun, I would say, doesn’t push his luck; he is a more modest writer than Hesse, a more naïve one. Fundamentally he is a slightly unexpected mixture of romantic and realist, and while the romantic ingredients must appeal to both aspiring youth and house-bound middle age—much as Hesse does with his beckoning to the mysterious East—his realism serves as a brake: the price for following one’s star, for “being oneself,” is pretty plainly chalked up. If they do not actually kill themselves, his characters generally tend toward suicide. But Hamsun would not need to feel, with the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, that he was seducing the young and had better supply a warning postscript: “Be a man and do not follow me.”

If Shakespeare’s characters—Cleopatra, Leontes, Hamlet—are “brutally simple” in their emotions, then how very complex must be Hamsun’s characters, his psychology! Yet complex would hardly seem the unquestionably right word for them, even if, compared with the flat bovine faces of the human backdrop provided, they are discernibly unconventional. Pride would appear to be the chief serpent in the Earthly Paradise: yet—the novels lead us to ask—without this serpent, would there be any paradise? Hamsun is masterly above all in his dealings with young love, the power of love to obsess and possess and also its power for undoing itself.

Yet however aptly Hamsun illustrates this theme in Pan and in Victoria, there is nothing complex about either the theme or his protagonists. We may feel that the latter are obstinate and unreasonable, that really there was nothing a quiet chat or an interchange of explanatory letters couldn’t have put right, and that by arrogantly asking everything they are inviting nothing. This is not complexity, nor is it a triumph of “shading or nuance”: it is a long way from what Tieck called the “beautiful contradictions” in Shakespeare’s characters, that surface appearance of a penetrating, sensitive, and essentially naturalistic expression of the workings of the human soul.


Even so, Mysteries goes some way to living up to its title, while being probably the most humorous of Hamsun’s novels. Johan Nilsen Nagel, the mysterious stranger, never reveals who he is or why he has come to the small Norwegian coastal town. “What right do you have to meddle in other people’s business?” he asks himself. “Why did you come here in the first place?” It is a mystery to him, too, though he has every appearance of knowing what he is up to, going about his mysterious business in a very businesslike fashion. It is hard to tell whether he is surreptitiously doing good or surreptitiously doing ill in the guise of surreptitiously doing good.

Like other Hamsun characters—like the young writer in Hunger, though he rarely has anything to give—Nagel is a compulsive giver-away of money, his manner of giving ranging from the most exquisitely considerate to the most arrogantly rude. Also the most humorous, as when he contrives laboriously to pay a poor woman a ridiculously generous price for a worm-eaten old chair.

“If it were up to you, what would prevent you from asking three hundred crowns…. You would be justified since you know we are discussing a rare and valuable piece. But I couldn’t pay a fantastic price like that…. I’ll give you two hundred for it and not a shilling more.”

She wants him to take the chair for nothing, but he gets round this by making her promise not to sell it to anyone else without first letting him know and then sending a third party to her with an offer of 220 crowns.

He also befriends The Midget, a poor misshapen and bullied creature, though not without bullying him himself. The proleptic shade of Ingmar Bergman lurks in the undergrowth. Possibly Nagel is mad: that is the diagnosis of a doctor offstage. Yet it seems that there is method in his madness, or there is about to be, at least until he falls in ill-conditioned love with the minister’s daughter, Dagny, who is engaged to an absent naval officer. To Dagny, Nagel is “the kind of man who is at odds with everybody and everything.” He is against pragmatism because it “robs our life of poetry, dreams, mysticism”—and certainly dreams and reveries loom large throughout Hamsun—but he is also against poets (“a rash, a scab on society, purulent pimples”) and other Great Men. Nagel is so much the individualist that he declines to be influenced even by other individualists. In an individual’s life there is room for only one truly individual individual: himself.

Hence, or so it seems, the failure of the passionate lovers of the other novels, couples resembling Achilles and Penthesilea (though reduced sharply to a scale congruous with provincial Norwegian society of the time) in that one or the other of them must die.

But in fact and in effect is Nagel more than eccentric? His outbursts of humility are as immoderate as his outbursts of arrogance. Manic fits yield without much shading or nuance to depressive phases. He has distracted the townspeople, he claims: “I’ve created one scandal after another in your dreary, conformist lives!” Then he rushes out and jumps into the sea: a fact not divulged to the townspeople, for whom he has vanished as suddenly and mysteriously as he came. Yes, he has given a small dull town something to talk about, a few very minor scandals. But nothing to justify the blurb’s grand talk of “a man cursed with the merciless gift of unsparing insight into the human soul, particularly his own; a man possessed by the Nietzschean will for power and domination.” It would be easier to see Mysteries as amiable mockery of that famous Nietzschean will: Nagel is an energetic busybody who can’t find anyone really worth dominating, except Dagny, and he fails there.

“Tell me, am I behaving as you want me to?” Edvarda asks the hunter Glahn in Pan, a book dedicated to “Johan Nilsen Nagel.” Individualists don’t quite know how to behave toward other individualists, and Hamsun’s characters are creatures of moods. They are also in one sense children of nature, happily in love with nature, a love with which for a while they confuse their human love. There is, in a less congratulatory sense, a peculiar childishness about them. I should think even the most receptive of readers must come to feel that their behavior is often wildly gratuitous, deliberately difficile, over and beyond the call of individualism and truth to self.


Like Nagel (who was also his own best friend) they are themselves their own worst enemies. Glahn causes the death of the girl who loves him—her fault is that she is too truly a child of nature—and pines for another who (it must be admitted) is something of a flirt. When he departs, he makes Edvarda a present of his faithful dog, as she has requested: that is, he shoots it and sends her the body. Nagel poisoned Dagny’s dog, but he had a reason of a sort: the animal used to bark when he hung around her house at night. In the epilogue we learn of Glahn’s death in India: it is an indication of the difference between Hamsun and Hesse that as far as we know Glahn went to India simply to hunt—and to sulk.

Probably what is most impressive in Pan, most memorable, is the keen evocation of the natural scene, the celebration of the forest and its creatures. Though Marvell’s “Garden” is a hothouse by comparison, we may recall these lines from it:

Such was that happy Garden-state,
While Man there walk’d without a Mate:
After a Place so pure, and sweet,
What other Help could yet be meet!

Only man is—not exactly vile, but willful, demanding, touchy. Nature’s richness is present in Victoria, too, but love is the larger presence here, the book is more centrally a study in the varieties of love.

Love was God’s first word, the first thought that sailed across his mind. He said, Let there be light, and there was love. And every thing that he had made was very good, and nothing thereof did he wish unmade again. And love was creation’s source, creation’s ruler; but all love’s ways are strewn with blossoms and blood, blossoms and blood.

Again, love goes wrong, but not in the horrific modern manner: on the contrary, Victoria is a romantic book, fornication-free, demonstrating that love is not necessarily born in bed and neither does it necessarily die there. All the same, the pride and the recognition of superiority which gave birth to love also, through the perversities of pride, bring it to its death. Victoria herself resembles Edvarda, but is more pathetic in her end. Johannes, the miller’s son who becomes a famous writer, is a sturdier character than Glahn and a less eccentric one than Glahn or Nagel: he works, he survives because of his work, and the running together in his mind of fantasy and reality is accountable for in a young writer. Johannes has what his creator had but neither Nagel nor Glahn was given—a profession, and one in which the imagination finds space to live and move with complete legitimacy.

The narrator of Hunger has that same happiness—that richness, if no other. Love is only an interlude here, or perhaps only one hallucination among others. Here too the quirks and fancies are immediately explicable and apropos as well, since the protagonist is not only a young writer but, for much of the time, he is literally starving—as his creator had starved not long before. His behavior is not gratuitous, nor are his fantasies: indeed the latter even manage to be humorous. Reduced to sucking on wood shavings, he imagines he is a cabinet minister ordering roast beef in a restaurant. He believes quite seriously that he will be able to pawn the buttons off his coat and goes about doing so with all a gentleman’s casualness:

“Well, I have something here, and I wanted to ask you if you had any use for—something that was really in the way at home, you understand, no room for them, some buttons…. Just enough for a cigar or whatever you think right. I was just going by anyway and thought I’d stop in.”

In his extreme physical weakness he finds that some of his faculties are sharpened (he can tell that his landlady is pregnant) while others are blunted (he can’t add up a simple bill). Life—or is it Society, or God?—may seem to be playing cat-and-mouse with him, for whenever he is about to go down for good, a few coins somehow drop into his hands. But what really sustains him is something else—a vivid if variegated inner life. Just as he has brought himself to swallow his pride and approach the stable-boy for the loan of a crown, the boy asks him for the loan of five crowns. The turn of events amuses him vastly:

I threw myself down on the bed and laughed. What incredible luck that he asked me first! My honor was saved. Five kroner. God help us! You could just as well have asked me for five shares in the Steam Kitchen, or for an estate out in Aker.

And when in the closing pages he signs on a merchant ship sailing to England, a naturalistic interpretation comes quite as readily as a symbolic one: he has made his point, he has proved that he can write, he has proved himself.

Of the novels published by Hamsun in the 1890s and recently (and well) translated or retranslated, Hunger and Victoria are the best as works of art, finished and self-sufficient, while Pan offers the nature lover some fine and large incidentals. But Mysteries, I would think, is likely to hold the greatest appeal at the present time, not merely because of the amused fondness we form for the disconcerting Johan Nilsen Nagel himself, but by virtue or by vice of the book’s “mysteriousness,” its open-endedness, its open invitation to interpretation as you like it.

This Issue

February 24, 1972